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C.S. Lewis expert Michael Wilcox gives ‘Hobbit’ context

Published: Friday, Dec. 14 2012 10:00 a.m. MST

S. Michael Wilcox (Deseret News archives) S. Michael Wilcox (Deseret News archives)

S. Michael Wilcox is a best-selling Deseret Book author and retired LDS institute instructor. Owing to the fact he penned his doctoral dissertation about the works of renowned Christian author C.S. Lewis, Wilcox is something of an expert on the life and times of Lewis. In turn, Wilcox’s expertise regarding Lewis also means he is no stranger to the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien — the author of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings,” who shared a close personal friendship with Lewis while both men taught at Oxford University.

With the movie “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” arriving in theaters Dec. 14, the Deseret News recently spoke with Wilcox to glean insight about the historical context and literary significance of “The Hobbit,” Tolkien’s 1937 book upon which the new film is based.

Deseret News: We often hear about a connection between Lewis and Tolkien. How would you characterize their relationship?

Michael Wilcox: Tolkien and Lewis were really good friends. They formed a little literary club — you know the English are big on clubs — called the "Inklings." There was a double meaning to it: They were men who liked ink and liked to write, and also when we talk about “I have an inkling or an intuition or a feeling” — they both had that kind of Romantic streak in them. …

Together with a number of other men, in those (Inklings') meetings they would read to one another the things they were writing. They would get comments and criticism and ideas from each other.

DN: How close were Tolkien and Lewis, on a personal level?

MW: They were very close all their lives. They would debate and talk about everything — not just literary things, but religious things. Lewis was an atheist for a while; when he was struggling with his faith, he didn’t understand how anybody could believe in God. It was his friendship with Tolkien and some other men — and their brilliance — that caused Lewis to rethink his religious stand in a lot of ways.

In the 1930s Lewis had a long talk one night with Tolkien about religion, literature and mythology. The story of Cyrus in Egypt and Balder in the Norse mythologies — the “dying god,” and that Romantic idea of truth coming through mythological ways — had always appealed to Lewis. Tolkien told Lewis (that) it’s the same thing with Christianity — only it really happened this time. And that very long conversation late into the night with Tolkien turned the tide for Lewis. That’s when he said, “I went into my room at Magdalen (College) that night and prayed for the first time: I had to admit God was God.”

DN: Where does “The Hobbit” story fit in terms of Tolkien’s legacy?

MW: The stories that have been really, really successful in the last 50 years — the Harry Potter series, “Star Wars,” “The Lord of the Rings” — they are all using the same basic archetypal formula (that is in “The Hobbit”) and it really speaks to the human heart.

• The stories all have a young, novice hero.

• The hero has to face great evil — not just evil, but cosmic evil. Big-time evil.

• (Heroes) are mentored in their challenge, their journey, by a wise old prophetic individual who can't do it for them, but will prepare them and mentor them to face the challenge that they alone must do.

• There is a group of friends that is loyal to (the hero), who are devoted to sacrifice both for one another and for the lead character in order to end the evil.

• After the victory, the hero not only triumphs over evil, but also ushers in or creates a time of goodness and peace. It’s the “happily ever after” part of the story, but it’s more than “happily ever after.”

Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at jaskar@desnews.com or 801-236-6051.

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